Marcus Samuelsson Begins Negotiations for Overtown Restaurant

The Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) voted unanimously Wednesday night to begin negotiating with celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson's development company to turn a onetime Overtown pool hall into a restaurant, supper club, and lounge.

The Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef bested six other applicants. The CRA also voted to keep Crescendo Jazz & Blues Lounge on standby if negotiations with Samuelsson fall through.

At the moment, there are no plans to invest any public money in the project, CRA staff said in response to a question from blogger Al Crespo. The agency has spent $850,000 renovating the 7,600-square-foot building it will lease for a yet-to-be-determined sum, according to a spokeswoman.

Samuelsson's pitch proposes to turn what was once famed music promoter Clyde Killens' pool hall into an Overtown version of Harlem's Red Rooster, which opened on Lenox Avenue in 2010. In doing so, it hopes to line up with efforts such as the Overtown Music & Arts Festival to help rebuild the neighborhood as a beacon of African-American life and culture. 

That's what Overtown needs given its history. During the middle of the 20th Century, Killens was a neighborhood titan, hosting acts like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin at the Knight Beat, the Harlem Square, and other clubs. It wasn't uncommon to find some of the generation's greatest thinkers and writers in the neighborhood. Yet at the time, segregation laws didn't permit artists, hired to perform in Miami Beach, to stay there. They found respite in Overtown. 

Samuelsson's group hopes to restore some of that former glory with an open-kitchen restaurant serving Southern cuisine flecked with Caribbean, Latin American, and African-American influences, according to its proposal. The group is also looking to flesh out a bar, catering managers to handle events, and a booker to manage live entertainment. All of the plans, however, still have to be hashed out in negotiations with the CRA.

In its proposal, the group also promises to collaborate with Pérez Art Museum Miami, Miami Culinary Institute, Lyric Theater, senior groups, and local schools. It claims it has spoken with urban farmers and the founders of Brooklyn's hipster food market Smorgasburg, who want to open a concept in Overtown. They want to help set up a weekly farmers' market, desperately needed because there a few fresh food options in the urban food desert. The CRA is also trying to bring a major grocery store to the neighborhood.

If all of these lofty promises can't be met, the CRA will look to Crescendo Jazz & Blues Lounge to step in. The lounge, operated by the Johnson family, opened on Biscayne Boulevard in 2010 and closed in 2013 when the building's new owner bought out the lease. Jasmine Johnson, age 25, switched majors from international business to hospitality while attending Florida International University to help her family tick off one box on its bucket list. 

"We are a black-owned, homegrown brand, a brand with history that wants to be in Overtown and a brand that has affected thousands of people from Miami to Paris," Johnson said during the meeting. Crescendo's pitch included similar plans to run a restaurant helmed by a celebrity chef as well as a professionally managed entertainment venue. 

Johnson stood by the board's decision and even supported the move to bring a national, black-owned brand into the neighborhood. Still, she said that they're not giving up on Overtown and that local operators that will be the ones to help drive change.

"I think it would've been great for Miami to start with us first," she said, "but we're looking forward to joining Marcus Samuelsson."

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